By Joseph Willits
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Speaking on this morning's Today Programme, David Willetts conceded that "provided it is fair" the government would be in favour of lower grade offers for university admission. His comments were made after it was announced that a quarter of English universities were missing their admissions targets for students from poorer backgrounds. These findings were disclosed in an annual monitoring report from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).
According to Willetts, the government would not "tell universities who individually they should select" but "provided they have got rigourous evidence" in favour of lowering the grades for those socially disadvantaged, then the Government would approve of their decision.
Willetts' comments are likely to cause friction within elements of the Tory party and might appear to some to run contrary to Michael Gove's article in yesterday's Daily Mail. The government is cautious not to make the issue something class based, or as Willetts said, "some kind of eccentric attempt to fight class war".
However, Willetts' tact is slightly different. Willetts' comments concern poorer students, with Gove's focusing primarily on badly performing schools. Gove slammed proposals made by the exam board, AQA, for "students with weaker A-levels, if they’ve attended a poor school… to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A-levels."
In the Mail Gove was adamant that A-levels should not be subject to any form of social engineering, and that the "old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades" is paramount. Gove also maintained the principle that nobody "wants to think they’ve been admitted somewhere on sufferance rather than ability", and that there should be no excuses for under performance.
Although slight, Willetts' comments today do allow room for universities to undertake a modest form of social engineering and acknowledge that if monitored carefully, that might not be a bad thing.